Chiawa Camp

Chiawa Camp: Our full report

Rooms
8 tents, 1 suite
Traveller's rating
Excellent (97%) From 57 reviews
Children
Best for 12+
Open
Mid-April to Mid-November

On the banks of the Zambezi River, beneath a grove of mahogany trees, Chiawa Camp sits in the heart of Zambia's wildlife-rich Lower Zambezi National Park. Chiawa was the first camp in the park, opened by the Cumings family in 1989, and is still run by Grant Cumings. Over the years, it has evolved in size and comfort to a high degree of understated luxury.

With its beautiful setting, long history and exceptionally high standards, Chiawa is one of our favourite camps in Zambia. As with most camps in the Lower Zambezi, it is open only during the drier months, between about mid-April and mid-November.

The camp has eight Meru-style tents and one larger safari suite, perfect for families or honeymooners. Linked to the main areas by sandy pathways, all are en suite and have broadly similar facilities, and all are beautifully furnished in wood and neutral colours, though some differ in terms of their layout or outlook. There are also plans to remodel some of the tents, keeping their current locations but realigning them to optimise their views of the animals that wander past on the way to the river.

  • Six tents (numbers 1–6) overlook the main Zambezi River and are closest to the main area. Each of these tents is raised on a wooden platform, large and sturdy, and is entered by a proper door. The front opens onto a private veranda with comfortable lounge chairs and a coffee table. Inside, they are spacious and open plan, incorporating a bedroom, bathroom and changing area.

    As well as twin beds, or a double, beneath a walk-in mosquito net, you'll find a wooden writing desk, ceiling and free-standing fans, and two armchairs. Behind the bed are a changing area and the bathroom, with twin sinks set into a wooden counter, a free-standing bath, flush toilet and rain shower. A private outdoor shower completes the picture.


  • The remaining two tents (7 and 8) have similar facilities to the rest, but these are a little bigger and with their bathrooms to the side of the open-plan bedroom and lounge area, rather than behind it. Because they catch the afternoon sun, these also have thatched roofs for extra shade. Tent no 7 overlooks both the Zambezi and the Chowe rivers, whilst no 8 overlooks the seasonal Chowe River.

  • Chiawa’s safari suite or honeymoon suite (though it works just as well for families), is different again. Opened in 2017 beside the Chowe River, it combines an understated but elegant design with a hilltop location towards the far end of the camp, affording it both privacy and views out to the Zambezi. With a thatched roof, canvas walls and folding wooden and gauze doors stretching the width of the suite, it’s a spacious, luxurious and comfortable retreat.

    Overlooking the river and running the width of the suite is a wooden deck, where comfy daybeds, chairs and sunloungers sit alongside a private plunge pool and, to one side, an open air shower. Steps lead down to a firepit and another seating area.

    Inside, the suite is decorated in light cream, jade and silver colours, which complement the light-wood furnishings. A large lounge area has sofas, coffee table and a small reference library, as well as a minibar and tea/coffee station. This space, with a guest cloakroom, can be converted into a second bedroom with two daybeds.

    Dominating the bedroom is a huge four-poster bed within a walk-in mosquito net. Bedside tables have stylish reading lamps, and on a practical note there are luggage shelves and storage units, holding a torch, emergency radio, mosquito repellent and a small safe.

    In the middle of the suite, between the lounge and bedroom areas, the open-plan bathroom features a free-standing bath (surrounded by candles), twin sinks and a second shower and toilet in separate cubicles. As with all of Chiawa’s tents, there are complimentary toiletries, dressing gowns and slippers.

Back at the heart of camp, Chiawa’s main area is a double-storey construction with uninterrupted views across the Zambezi River. Built mostly of dark wood, reeds and thatch, it exudes a pleasantly rustic air of outdoor living. Downstairs you'll find the bar, and two separate lounge areas with wooden chairs and benches, and cane furniture with soft cushions in neutral tones and earthy reds. There's also a small library of books and magazines and a natural-history display table. Upstairs is a third comfortable seating area and a viewing deck with a telescope. We understand this area was remodelled in 2018, with the aim of expanding the seating and dining areas, while maintaining the cosy atmosphere.

The food at Chiawa is usually excellent and most meals are taken in the separate dining area, which is open to the front and overlooks the river.
Lunch is a movable feast, perhaps under the shade of the trees or on Chiawa's motorised pontoon, and breakfast is set up around the campfire. In the dining room you'll also find a “help yourself” tea and coffee table, which is always stocked with freshly baked biscuits. Dinner is often by candlelight under the stars, and the team at Chiawa will often arrange private dinners away from camp in a section of dry riverbed, illuminated by candles and storm lanterns.

For those hot days on the Zambezi, Chiawa Camp has a large swimming pool, with a shaded area and sunloungers. And if you want to work off that extra cake from afternoon tea, you might also be tempted by the small gym area, with cardio equipment as well as weights and yoga mats! The camp also has a small shop, stocked with good-quality, locally made curios.

In the corner of the camp, Chiawa has an elevated viewing platform, overlooking the confluence of the Chowe (or Chiawa) and Zambezi rivers, so ideal for watching animals come down for their midday drink. There are also two hides, one just on the edge of the camp, next to the river, and one sunk into the ground next to a waterhole, allowing an eye-level' view of buffalo, warthogs and other thirsty animals.

With a team of excellent and enthusiastic guides, Chiawa offers a full range of flexible activities, which include game drives (day and night) in open 4WDs, walking safaris, canoeing and boat trips, and catch-and-release fishing. The guides are professional and knowledgeable, and over numerous visits since our first in 1995, most recently in June 2017, we've come to appreciate their willingness to go out of their way to try to fulfill each guest's interests.

The game viewing in the Chiawa area has been superb over the years, too – so much so that it's not unusual for camps downriver or from just outside the park boundaries to head this way. On just one evening drive we spotted a variety of wildlife, from lion and leopard, to porcupine and chameleons. Don't expect giraffe or wildebeest, though, as they're not found in this area. Until early 2017, we’d have said that cheetah weren’t to be found in the bush surrounding Chiawa either, but a lone male has been spotted several times since.

For the keen birdwatcher, the Lower Zambezi is great for both water and land birds. During September to November, the nesting carmine bee-eaters are quite a spectacle.,Boating, canoeing and walking safaris give a different perspective, and if you're very quiet and cautious, may sometimes allow you to get close to the birds without disturbing the – our sightings have included giant eagle owl, spurwinged geese, kingfishers and an abundance of Goliath herons.

Fishing at Chiawa is guided by experts, from custom-built pontoon boats using fly and conventional tackle (and artificial bait). If you're serious about fishing, though, consider booking a private boat, especially during September and October when fishing is at its best and demand for this activity can be high. Expect a cost of around US$175 per boat for half a day (about four hours) or US$350 for a full day. The number of boats is limited to two, so advance booking is advisable.

Chiawa's team is one of the founder members of Conservation Lower Zambezi, a non-governmental organisation which aims to reduce poaching and misuse of resources in Zambia's Lower Zambezi. Chiawa remains particularly active in its support of CLZ, and Expert Africa is also proud to support this worthy charity.

Our view

In many ways, we think Chiawa is one of the best, and best-run, camps in Africa. The service and food are top-notch, with a team who tend to go out of their way to make everyone feel comfortable – and have consistently left us feeling that nothing was too much trouble. The camp manages to be luxurious, while still feeling homely and welcoming, a balance that can be difficult to get right. A good complement of excellent guides and a flexible attitude towards activities means that guests will usually get to do what they want, more or less when they want. We love it.

Geographics

Location: Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia

Ideal length of stay: We recommend a minimum of three nights at Chiawa, although many visitors stay for longer to take advantage of the variety of activities on offer. Chiawa also combines well with its sister camp, Old Mondoro, further east in the national park.

Directions: Following a short flight of about 40 minutes from Lusaka to one of the airstrips that serve the national park, the transfer to camp is between 20 and 40 minutes by 4WD, and a further 20 minutes by boat.

Accessible by: Fly-and-Transfer

Key personnel

Owner: Owned and run by Grant Cumings and his family.

Food & drink

Usual board basis: Full Board

Food quality: Expert Africa team members have visited Chiawa Camp many times, the first in 1995! When we stayed in June 2017, as on previous occasions, the food was very good and the portions very generous. The chefs will happily cater for a variety of dietary requirements.

You'll be woken just before sunrise with a 'knock knock', when tea or coffee will be brought to your tent. Guests meet around the campfire for a light breakfast, which usually consists of toast, muffins, pancakes or pastries, cereal, yoghurt and porridge, along with tea, coffee and fresh fruit juice.

Lunch is served at around 11.00am or 11.30am, once you've had some time to freshen up after your morning activity. Most recently we were treated to one of Chiawa's special lunches on their motorised pontoon, where we tucked into sesame chicken with roasted vegetables, Thai noodles, a selection of salads and homemade bread. The food was delicious, and enjoyed while we watched numerous elephant, hippo and crocodile along the riverbank. Our lunch at the lodge was a very tasty beef fillet with aubergine and pepper brochettes and a selection of salads, although we could also have ordered eggs, sausages and bacon. A light lychee sorbet finished our meal.

Afternoon tea, served at about 3.30pm before your afternoon activity, usually involves both a freshly baked cake or cookies and a savoury dish. We enjoyed flatbreads and hummus, then a delicious carrot cake with Amarula icing.

Dinner is usually a four-course meal served under the stars in the main area. We started with a feta and pepper tartlet, followed by butternut squash soup, then grilled tilapia with jasmine rice and steamed vegetables. After expressing our delight at the Amarula in the afternoon snack, we were treated to Amarula chocolate mousse for dessert – delicious!

Dining style: Group Meals

Dining locations: Indoor and Outdoor Dining

Cost of meal e.g. lunch: Included

Drinks included: Filtered drinking water, soft drinks, local beers and spirits, and a selection of red, white and sparkling wines are included.

Further dining info: No

Special interests

Solo Travel: Chiawa is never cheap, but it has no single supplement, making it a more affordable option for solo travel in Zambia. A combination of communal meals and incredibly friendly staff also means solo travellers shouldn't lack for company.

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Honeymoons: Chiawa's safari suite is perfect for a Zambia honeymoon. Couples can dine privately in their room, or enjoy a romantic meal à deux on the camp’s motorised pontoon. A bathtub big enough for two and shared showers under the stars add to the romance.

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Birdwatching: Chiawa is a particularly good camp for birdwatching in Zambia: it's great for water and land birds, with favourites including ospreys, eagle owls, kingfishers and carmine bee-eaters. Boating, walks and a wildlife hide give different perspectives, and the camp has expert guides.

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Photography holidays: Chiawa's open-topped 4WD vehicles are ideal for a photography safari in Zambia, while boating, canoeing and two hides give different perspectives on the wildlife. Then there are the camp’s excellent guides, plus the stunning backdrop scenery of the escarpment behind camp.

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Wildlife safaris: The Lower Zambezi is one of the best parks for wildlife safaris in Zambia, and Chiawa is one of very few camps inside the park. Top-notch guides add to the understanding and enjoyment of a safari, and red-filtered spotlights on night drives create less disruption to the wildlife.

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Luxury: With uninterrupted views across the Zambezi River, Chiawa’s classic tents are furnished to a high standard. Attention to detail and quality abound: this is a tightly-run ship! Expect food that would grace a top restaurant, and an impressive range of activities delivered by an attentive team.

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Children

Attitude towards children: Chiawa welcomes mature and responsible children over the age of eight years.

Property’s age restrictions: The minimum age of children visiting is 8 years, with a minimum age of 12 for walking and canoeing.

Special activities & services: None.

Equipment: Chiawa’s safari suite works well for a family, with two day beds that can be set up in the lounge area for children. Alternatively, tents 1 and 2 are relatively close together, and would work for a family with older children – but you'd still need an adult in each tent as nobody is allowed to walk around camp alone after dark.

Notes: Chiawa Camp is unfenced, and dangerous wildlife often wanders through. The riverbank is open, and steep in parts, and the swimming pool is unfenced. Children need to be closely supervised by their parents at all times.

Infrastructure

Power supply: Generator

Power supply notes: There are plug points in the tents for charging batteries, iPads, phones etc. A separate plug socket allows for limited use of a (provided) hairdryer.

Communications: There is no direct phone line – although the camp does have satellite communications for emergencies. Cellphone reception is very intermittent and not reliable. WiFi is available, but is very slow and is restricted to guest tents.

TV & radio: No

Water supply: Other

Water supply notes: Water is pumped from the Zambezi River and is filtered. Showers and bathtubs are plumbed in, with hot and cold running water and there are flushing toilets. There are plans for a borehole to be drilled, to provide fresh water for the camp.

Health & safety

Malarial protection recommended: Yes

Medical care: The camp managers and guides are trained in first aid. The closest doctor is in the village, 1½ hours away by boat. In case of a medical emergency, guests would be evacuated by air to Lusaka and then potentially to Johannesburg.

Dangerous animals: High Risk

Security measures: Chiawa is an unfenced camp, on the edge of the Zambezi River. Wildlife, including elephant, hippo and leopard are known to roam through the camp on a regular basis. Guests are escorted to their tents after dark and a safety radio is provided in each tent to raise the alarm in case of emergency.

Fire safety: There are fire buckets at all the tents and behind all the thatched buildings. There's also a fire blanket and fire extinguishers in the kitchen.

Extras

Disabled access: On Request

Laundry facilities: A full laundry service is included, except for ladies' underwear, for cultural reasons. Washing powder is provided in each bathroom for this purpose, as is a small washing line.

Money: There is a safe in each tent. The camp does not offer any currency-exchange facilities.

Accepted payment on location: Any extras such as purchases from the shop or special fishing trips, need to be settled in cash, preferably in Zambian kwacha. However, small amounts of US dollars are usually acceptable, although notes dated 2006 or later preferred.